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Iraqi police detain journalists as Shiite cleric plans visit to Najaf

NAJAF, Iraq—Iraqi police, some with their faces covered by ski masks, fired several shots as they stormed a hotel packed with journalists Wednesday, rounding them up at gunpoint and forcing them onto flatbed trucks bound for the local police station, where they were detained for an hour.

At the station, Najaf Police Chief Ghaleb Hashem al Jazairi told the 60 or so journalists they were detained because the Dubai-based satellite television channel al Arabiya had reported that Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, the most prominent Shiite Muslim cleric in Iraq, would arrive in Najaf Thursday to lead a demonstration.

The chief said his forces were unprepared for the news to go out Wednesday night and that as a result at least two Iraqis who arrived early for Sistani's march were killed during clashes with police.

Some officers also blamed reporters for inciting violence against government institutions such as the police and armed services.

"We were attacked by 14 mortar shells tonight and we expect more, so you're going to stay with us in this room to see what we go through," one officer told the journalists crowded in the chief's office.

The incident underscored how tense and unpredictable Najaf has become after three weeks of fighting between U.S.-led forces and the Mahdi Army militia of rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Sistani's sudden plan to return to Najaf, and his call for Iraqi Shiite Muslims to join him there Thursday, has unsettled an already chaotic situation.

This correspondent was in her room on the third floor of the hotel when she heard a loud boom that sounded like a mortar or rocket attack. When she peered over an indoor balcony, she saw at least four policemen running up the stairs with guns drawn.

Other reporters were in the first-floor restaurant when the police rushed the building, brandishing pistols. "All the journalists out now or we'll kill you!" one officer yelled as he went room to room, kicking doors and dragging out reporters.

This reporter hastily grabbed a flak jacket, computer equipment and a camera before a police officer barged into her room, pointed an assault rifle in her face and ordered her out.

"Now, sister, now!" the officer yelled in Arabic.

Outside, dozens of dazed and outraged journalists stood in the darkness as large trucks rolled up the front drive.

A police officer forced three women reporters, including two working for Knight Ridder, into the back seat of a flatbed truck, while they crammed male correspondents into the open bed. At last two other trucks were loaded with reporters.

The scene became increasingly chaotic. One officer fired a shot at the feet of one obstinate Iraqi journalist. Another officer, who apparently believed correspondents were filming the episode from the roof, started firing his assault rifle from the crowd.

Police roughed up a few reporters, but no one appeared seriously injured.

At the nearby police headquarters, the journalists were ordered out of the trucks and into the chief's office for a news conference at gunpoint. Officers passed out pieces of paper for reporters to take notes.

Jazairi launched into a tirade about how the news of Sistani's return to Najaf was "exploited by elements of the Mahdi Army and al-Qaida." He would not elaborate. Jazairi said the end of al-Sadr's militia was near and held up photos of the bruised bodies of police officers beaten by insurgents.

He even waxed poetic, describing how Mahdi Army mortar fire left one child "shaking like a palm leaf in the wind."

A British reporter interrupted Jazairi. "This is a kidnapping," the London-based journalist said.

"I didn't tell them to arrest you," Jazairi responded with a shrug.

After several more minutes, the journalists were released. At Knight Ridder's insistence, the police chief's nephew drove the women reporters back to the hotel in his personal car. The others climbed back onto the trucks.

"If you need anything, just name it," the chief's nephew said, identifying himself only as Ali. "We'll help you."


(Knight Ridder special correspondent Huda Ahmed contributed to this article from Najaf.)


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.